'They Know I'm About Something'

Growing up in a poor Los Angeles neighborhood that still shows scars from the 1992 riots, David Ramirez watched friends wind up in juvie, or worse, after getting involved in theft and other small-time crimes. He knew he was headed in the same direction if he didn't get a plan.

So in the ninth grade, David enrolled in the Army Reserve Officers' Training Corps program at Inglewood High School. Though he thought the olive uniforms were dorky, David liked the sense of purpose he'd seen in others who enrolled. "The more free time you got, the more you're bound to end up in some type of trouble," says David, now 17. "Plus, I didn't want to be home that much. In ROTC, everyone's family.'' He likens his school's ROTC to a secret fraternity. "When I walk in my neighborhood now, the gang guys see me in my uniform and they leave me alone. They know I'm about something."

Dare we say it? ROTC is cool again. Started in 1916 when the United States was faced with world war, ROTC fell out of favor after Vietnam. But it found renewed popularity thanks to gulf-war patriotism and the skyrocketing costs of higher education (ROTC gives scholarships of up to $35,000 a year in exchange for a four- to eight-year commitment to the military). Today it has 200,000 students nationwide, and its ranks have increased considerably since September 11.

For many inner-city kids like David Ramirez, ROTC is sorely needed. The students at his school, divided evenly among blacks and Hispanics, suffer more than their share of poverty and low self-esteem. "These kids are living very tough lives, and September 11 didn't change that a bit," says Sgt. 1/c Luis A. Melendez, who has headed the Inglewood program since 1994. Usually only a handful sign up each semester, but after September 11 the ranks at Inglewood swelled to 350. "Many of them knew that the military was their best option, one way or the other, for any chance out of here," says Melendez.

An average to below-average student before ROTC, David now boasts a 3.5 GPA. He is second in command for the school's ROTC squad and plans to attend West Point next fall with the sponsorship of Rep. Maxine Waters. "I want to show people that someone from this community could get there and make it," he says.